Working at a distance is hard. It requires discipline, planning, trust, and an acceptance that things may not be smooth. It can however, be empowering, productive and highly successful. But how do we enable our data science teams to stay connected to the culture and values any organisation stands for, and one another – both professionally and socially – when we lose the ability for physical interaction? Arguably, COVID-19 has done more for digital transformation than the past 10 years of technological evolution and as a result the workplace has changed forever. Meaning a whole new set of tools and processes combined with effective stakeholder management, in a positive, success-led manner.
Below are some practical hints and simple processes that can be adopted with your teams that we deploy in our own Project Management, to ensure we stay productive in a suboptimal environment.
1. Talking beatS WRITING
Success comes from communication. We’ve all had weeks, days and even moments when we’ve wanted to shoot email in the face and bury it six feet beneath the surface, and at times of social isolation, the need to ensure the appropriate use of email is paramount. For many people, email is the standard go-to device for managing workload, but to truly engage people in the business, we need to shift our thinking so that communications are more interactive giving all participants a voice. On day 2 of isolation, we instigated a daily stand-up at team level – just a short 15-minute meeting where everyone got to highlight issues, blockers, concerns, achievements, and questions – both work and personal. Aside from providing a platform to check the health and physical wellbeing with demonstrating empathy for everyone’s personal circumstancces, it gives an opportunity for everyone to stay connected, see each other, and generate a sense of ‘all-in-it-togetherness’ that the written word simply cannot achieve. Do this every day, make it a ritual, and maybe it will stay with you once we’re out the other side.
2. Protocol has changed
Strong and effective leadership is based on understanding the purpose, people and processes related to any given activity. In a remote setting, this is more difficult to achieve. The best decisions are made when they are informed through experience, so take the opportunity of inviting senior stake holders, engage and break down barriers across the organisation. Ensure clarity as to why data is at the heart of every business decision. Get them involved in daily stand-ups, include them in team discussions – not to lead, but to participate – and give them the opportunity to understand the context within which the business is now operating. As a workforce we are all learning this new paradigm together, and only together will we find the best way to deliver.
3. Create space for your staff and trust them to deliver
The working day at home; wake up, stumble to the bathroom, see your laptop enroute, open and get sucked in. Before you know it, family life is happening around you and the ability to distinguish between work ‘you’ and ‘non-work’ you is increasingly diminished. Many successful people live like this all their lives – I once had a CEO tell me he purposefully didn’t distinguish between work and home – but I don’t believe this is the norm, nor do I believe it to healthy for the majority of us. And we can do things to help.
Create space in the working day to step away. Encourage everyone to do the same. Be tolerant if individuals need to focus on other priorities at certain times and trust your colleagues to get the job done. I am sure that working patterns will shift markedly as a result of COVID-19, but we will also be a more productive country as a result. Encourage your staff to connect with their families, give them space to work to a pattern that allows them stay focused. Do this for them, and you’ll be surprised at how big a mountain they’ll move for you.
4. Maximise the adoption of shared platforms
Alongside your daily standups, encourage the daily adoption of data science tools as an outlet for question, advice or even unload after a bad day. Mango heavily relies on instant messaging tools such as Microsoft Teams and Slack, which offer a great way for our team to communicate and share their own tips and tricks. We also conduct a weekly analytics club for showcasing ideas and progress with projects, and encourage conversations throughout the week with games like ‘Whos Desk is this?’ and ‘Two truths and a lie’. Shared collaboration tools such as trello, planner or JIRA offer a great platform for sharing to do lists and help understand generally how projects are progressing. Coding in remote teams only enforces the need for good coding practices, structured review processes, creating readable and reproducible code, and making use of version control software’s such as Git and GitLab. While working remotely, these practices and tools enhance our ability to share code with the team. Afterall Data Science is a Team sport.
5. Be open to challenge and let your staff see their voice
We do so many things whilst ‘at work’ and our experience and activities are often so much more than the job we have. We make friends, we come together around similar interests and passions, and we help each other when needed. None of this happens simply because we have a job; it happens because at the heart of it, we are driven by the need to be active in our community. But people also need to feel that they have a voice. COVID-19 and the related isolation has been an imposition like we have never experienced before, and everyone is working out what works best for them. Leaders are trying to put mechanisms in place to allow workable solutions, but these won’t always be right. Its important to give those experiencing it (and by that we mean EVERYONE!) a chance to feed in. Create space for staff to share challenges, offer solutions, and be prepared to act on them. Giving staff the ability to see change as a direct result of their needs will help them see that they can make a difference. This is a critical component of community building and will and it will bring your teams closer together.
We might just find , the end result is a whole new set of tools and processes, combined with effective stakeholder management, lending itself to in a positive enforced success-led initiative .
Author Pete Scott, Client Services Director at Mango.